Thursday, December 27, 2007

PUCO forbids utilities to cut off service to poorest Ohioans

from The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Sheryl Harris
Plain Dealer Columnist

Ohio's poorest residents won't go without heat this winter if they fall behind on their utility bills - as long as they keep trying to make some payments.

In response to a call by Gov. Ted Strickland, the Ohio Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday forbade electric and natural gas companies to disconnect electric or gas service for Ohio's poorest consumers over the winter.

The three-month moratorium applies only to consumers whose incomes are at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. To qualify, a single person could make up to $17,867.50 annually; a family of five, $42,227.50.

But consumers who fall within income guidelines could still find themselves without heat if they ignore their bills.

The disconnect moratorium applies only to consumers who are enrolled in a PUCO-approved payment plan.

Those plans include the Percentage of Income Payment Program, better known as PIPP; the Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as HEAP; and similar payment programs offered through utilities.

The moratorium expires in mid-March, and in Ohio, that means there will be a whole lot of winter left to go when the program ends.

Consumers struggling to pay utility bills can seek help using the numbers and Web sites that follow.

The HEAP hot line at 1-800-282-0880 or

The Ohio Consumers' Counsel at 1-877-742-5622 or

The PUCO at 1-800-686-7826 or Many utilities also offer payment programs through their customer service departments.

The OCC asked the PUCO to set a higher income cap 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. The PUCO indicated it might consider raising the cap.

The last time the PUCO approved a shut-off moratorium was 2001, when Gov. Bob Taft requested a ban. This time around, the commission noted the rocky economy and the lack of federal financial assistance available to consumers.

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